I don’t think I’ve analyzed this paper on my site, but, since it came out recently, it’s become well known among rational biologists for being tendentious, ideologically based, and largely incoherent, something you might intuit from its title. You can read it by clicking on the screenshot below:
The paper’s object is to dismantle the “simplistic” views of sex as being binary, because there is variation of things like hormones and other physiological and biochemical conditions within each sex, and somehow using the concepts of “male” and “female” obscures this variation. And that obscuring is harmful. Here are a few excerpts:
Our collective overreliance upon the simplistic heuristic of “sex” in data collection, hypothesis formation, analyses, and data interpretation leads to inaccurate and underspecified scientific knowledge. Uncritically dividing subjects into “female” and “male” categories (or other hypersimplistic models) obscures relevant physiologies and precludes the possibility of more specific (and more accurate) analyses. This obscuring effect of “sex” was elegantly demonstrated in a recent neuroendocrine study, where researchers analyzed their data by “sex” and then by estrous stage. Their analysis revealed that collapsing sex category hid the dynamic nature of ovarian hormones (Rocks et al., 2022): if the experiment had assumed the internal coherence of sex categories (as is common practice), important dynamics within these categories would have been overlooked to the detriment of our scientific understanding.
You probably see that this is itself incoherent, as to see variation in the estrous cycle, which certainly exists within females, you first have to identify the subjects as female. They’re assuming a sex binary, and then telling us that it’s harmful because. . . well, I don’t understand what they’re saying, and neither, as you can read below, does Jesse Singal (see below).
The paper has an overt ideological premise: the dismantling of the sex binary is necessary to empower those people who don’t feel like they’re members of one sex or another:
In addition to impeding rigorous science, our continued used of “sex” in basic and biomedical research perpetuates misconceptions that legitimize harmful social and medical practices. In human-oriented research, simplistic (and often binary) models of sex pathologize trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people (as discussed during the SBN 2022 Symposium on Hormones and Trans Health). And those studies that do focus on the needs and interests of these populations are treated as “niche” and marginal to the fields they contribute to (Aghi et al., 2022). Current
First of all, trans people are members of one sex that feel like they are members of another, which assumes a sex binary. Also, non-binary and gender nonconforming people are not “pathologized” simply by defining sex as the condition of having the apparatus for making either large, immobile gametes (females) or small mobile ones (males). Nonbinary and gender nonconforming people are almost invariably members of one sex or the other, even if they don’t feel like it, and that’s a fact. If there’s any “pathologizing”, it’s done by bigots, not by a scientific definition.
Here’s the paper’s tendentious conclusion:
To be clear: this is a call-to-arms. This is not a how-to or a roadmap. This is an invitation to continue the conversations begun in the SBN 2022 Symposium on Hormones and Trans Health. With the enclosed guidance and our collective creativity, we believe that the behavioral neuroendocrinology community is well-positioned to implement this deconstructionist approach in lieu of binary sex frameworks, to move away from this hypersimplistic sex model and conceptualize “sex” (and non-sexed) physiologies as multiple, interacting, variable, and unbounded by gendered limitations.
A real scientific paper is not a “call to arms”, and this one is almost duplicitous in trying to reject the idea of sex by saying that within sexes there is meaningful biological variation that needs to be studied. But who could possibly object to that? Carole Hooven notes this in a tweet:
“To be clear: this is a call-to-arms. This is not a how-to or a roadmap. We [are] well-positioned to implement this deconstructionist approach in lieu of binary sex frameworks, to move away from this hypersimplistic sex model…’Sex’ is a constructed category, not a biological… pic.twitter.com/PkK3Brz6jJ
— Carole Hooven (@hoovlet) October 20, 2023
Jesse Singal, who’s very good at analyzing papers is (like me) baffled by this one, as you can see from the title of his Substack article below. Click to read:
Singal on the ideological motivation of the authors:
In my view, this paper is the latest example of what has become a yearslong effort on the part of some left-leaning scientists, activists, and journalists: fuzzing up the concept of biological sex as much as possible, attempting to turn it into a troubled, subjective, unknowable mystery.
This movement seeks to distract from the fact that more than 99% of people can be described as straightforwardly male or female, solely (as I see it) in the service of a single goal: making sure no one can ever claim someone who says they are a man or a woman or nonbinary isn’t really that thing. That is, if it’s not only cruel or mean but scientifically inaccurate to point to a trans woman and say “That’s really a male!” then — the thinking goes — this will advance the cause of justice. [JAC: Actually, the figure of those who conform to the sex binary is about 99.982%.]
I’ve argued in the above-linked post that this causes a lot of shoddy and confused thinking, and is unnecessary. There are all sorts of moral arguments for treating trans people how they would like to be treated that don’t rely on the belief that they are really in some biological sex, X or Y or Z. You see the same logical leaps over and over again. In this paper, for example, Massa and her colleagues argue that “the use of simplistic (and often binary) models of sex ignores the existence of intersex, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people,” without explaining what this means. But it doesn’t necessarily follow. If you point out that someone is biologically male or female in a context where that matters, you’re of course not denying the possibility that they don’t identify with that sex or might seek to change it to the extent biomedical technology allows. In fact, until recently this was the Trans 101 definition of. . . well, being trans! It described the condition of having a gender identity at odds with your biological sex.
As for the variation of the ovarian cycle somehow eroding the sex binary, demonstrated in mice, he says this (the authors cited a paper by Rocks et al. from 2022)
This is a very odd choice of paper for Massa and her colleagues to present as evidence that sex categories aren’t “internally coherent.” (For what it’s worth, I asked a philosopher if this term has an agreed-upon meeting and he said it didn’t. I also emailed Massa to ask her what definition of the term she was relying on, and didn’t hear back. The Rocks team didn’t return an email, either.)
It’s an odd choice because Rocks and his colleagues certainly view sex as internally coherent in their paper! They don’t even define the terms in question — male and female — because of course, anyone reading the journal Biology of Sex Difference already knows what they mean — the male mice are the one who produce the small gametes (sperm), while the female mice are the ones who produce the large gametes (eggs). There’s nothing incoherent here, and no, gesturing vaguely at (say) murine disorders of sex development doesn’t really change that. Just because there is some fuzziness at the edges of these categories doesn’t mean the categories themselves aren’t exceptionally useful — vital, even. For example, Rocks and his colleagues also include charts like this. . .
. . . . . . and it just seems pretty clear that they somehow knew exactly which the male versus female mice were. They couldn’t have really run their reanalyses otherwise.
Note that everything is divided up by “male” and “female” (click to enlarge):
He concludes, correctly, after quoting some social-justice-speak from Massa et al. (estrus fluctuations apply to “cis women, non-binary individuals, and transgender men who menstruate”, all of which of course are biological females):
These obviously aren’t reactionaries — they know how to speak the necessary social justice lingo to ensure their paper gets published without much protest. But they’re also pointing out that however one identifies, there’s still a biological sex lurking underneath that has explanatory power. Yes, in this case, factoring in the estrous cycle provides far more data than merely factoring in sex, but the former depends on the latter. If you didn’t have the concept of sex, and if you can’t easily and accurately identify which are the male versus female mice, you wouldn’t be able to run these analyses!
And his conclusion:
But I will say that I’ve noticed a pattern where when I look into these claims about the supposed fuzziness and lack of importance of the basic male/female difference, I often find the arguments 1.) are straightforwardly wrong or misleading, 2.) collapse into something obvious, 3.) are so hard to follow, in terms of their basic logic (rather than technical language), that I don’t know what to make of them, or 4.) are quite philosophically muddled, such as by confusing and freely mixing distinct terms like sex, gender, and gender identity.
In the end, Singal gets humble and says that he might be missing something and begs his readers to explain what it might be that he’s doesn’t get. But read the paper for yourself and see if it doesn’t fit into one or more of the four categories above.